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Voters' dilemma: What happens if it's Hillary vs. Trump?

Modes of thought

Many voters aren't enthused about the prospect of a Clinton vs. Trump election. So, will they fall in line and back one – or not? 

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    Anna Reid peeks out of the voting booth as she waits for her mother to finish voting in the Pennsylvania primaries at the Cumberland Township Municipal Building in Gettysburg, Pa., Tuesday.
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Justin Schoville accomplished a rare feat for a protester at a Trump event: He managed to get himself thrown out – three times – just before Donald Trump’s maiden foreign policy address at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington on Wednesday.

“Trump is a fascist, we are a democracy!” he shouted, during his second forced exit from the hotel lobby.

Just a day before, Mr. Schoville, a research analyst in Bethesda, voted for Bernie Sanders in the Maryland primary. But if the race comes down to Mr. Trump vs. Hillary Clinton, he says he would vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, even if it might help elect Trump. 

“I can’t in good conscience give my support to Hillary Clinton. She represents the establishment, the 1 percent, and her policies, I think, will only deepen the problems that have caused Donald Trump to rise in the first place, he says.

In most typical presidential elections, voters like Schoville might already have sighed and reluctantly thrown their support behind Mrs. Clinton. Presidential primary races were all but over before the cherry trees blossomed along the Potomac.

This year, however, the capital is deep into the azalea season and the passions among voters and activists backing the underdogs are still blazing.

Even as Clinton and Trump have now gained enough momentum to claim to be the “presumptive nominees” for November, many voters are showing few signs of accepting that. Will they eventually rally around the presumptive leaders?

It's an oft-repeated question every presidential campaign, but the peculiar dynamics of this race make the answer less certain. 

In the past, disgruntled primary voters have rallied to the eventual nominee. By one measure, the tea party insurgents who seemingly held their nose to vote for Mitt Romney in 2012 were actually among his most active supporters during the general election. There are indicators that the same thing could happen on the Democratic side this time.

But Clinton and Trump are two of the three least popular presidential candidates of the past 24 years, according to Gallup. And the question for Republicans is reversed. If Mr. Trump wins, will the moderate and establishment conservatives rally to his cause? That answer appears less certain. 

Slow Bern

For their part, Sanders voters aren't conceding yet. 

Their candidate delivered another rock-the-rafters town-hall meeting at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania last Friday, – just down the road from the site of Pickett’s charge that ended the Confederate advance north on Day 3 of the Battle of Gettysburg. But Clinton still swept four of five primaries this week, along with enough delegates to put the nomination virtually out of reach for the Vermont senator.

But while Sanders is already shifting gears away from winning the nomination to influencing the party’s platform, many of his supporters at the polling place on the Gettysburg campus are still feeling Bern – and disappointed at the mounting prospect that Clinton will be the nominee. 

Dana Suitte, who works for a printing company in Gettysburg, says she told her four sons to vote for Sanders. “I really like the fact that he wants to look at everything and change anything that’s not working,” while Clinton “comes off like a politician” and “is just running on her history with nothing original to say.”

“I think that she thinks that because a lot of black people voted for her husband they will automatically vote for her, and that’s not true,” says Ms. Suitte, who is black. 

But her view could change if Clinton picked Sanders as a running mate, she says. “I would love a woman to be president, but I thought I wanted a little bit more from her.”

“The only upside is Bill Clinton’s influence in the White House with her,” she adds. “Bill Clinton was a really good president. That would be my only confidence.”

Trump's 'magic number'

On the Republican side, it’s the antiestablishment side that triumphed, as Donald Trump ran the table with outsize wins in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Many Republicans now face what some see as an even tougher choice over whether to support Trump.

A recent Gallup poll finds that 51 percent of Democrats have a favorable view of both Clinton and Sanders, but only 28 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of both the top two GOP candidates, Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

Robin Williams-Beers, a retired glass engraver who describes herself as a Christian conservative, attended a rally for Ohio Gov. John Kasich on the eve of Tuesday’s primary vote in Rockville, Md.  She stakes out a front-row seat with her home-made signs, including: “Resist the rage. Research. Think. Vote Kasich.” 

In some respects, she might seem a natural supporter for Senator Cruz or even Trump, who has drawn strong support from Christian conservative voters in the South. But she says that she had health issues at the start of the primary season and used her time in bed to read up on the candidates, including Governor Kasich’s account of the impact that Bible study had on his life in his book, “Every Other Monday.” “I feel like he unifies people and our country desperately needs that right now,” she says. 

She showed up at the polls in Kingsville, Md., at 6:30 a.m. to post signs for Kasich, as a volunteer, and took down the signs at 9:30. While at the polling venue, “many people asked me who would be the best vote to stop Trump,” she said in a phone interview after the vote. 

Could she bring herself to vote for Trump? “That’s a very difficult thing to say in this point in time,” she says. “I’m waiting and praying. He does not have the magic number yet, and so much has happened in this election that I hope that something will stop him from becoming the nominee.”

“When the time comes, I’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” she says.

Tea partyers for Romney!

In an election that has so often defied expectations, polls may not get to the critical question of whether voters will be motivated to turn out to vote for the nominee.

Research shows that people who are most active for candidates who fail to get the nomination do not withdraw from general election activity but often become the most active. 

“It’s a long way to November,” says Ronald Rapoport, a political scientist at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., who has written extensively on Ross Perot voters and, most recently, tea party activists.

His own research, working from a unique data set of surveys over time involving some 700,000 tea party supporters, found that those who were the most active for tea party candidates like Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain were also the most active for Mr. Romney in the general election.

So, the good news for the Republican Party is that highly divisive primary contests between the tea party and establishment Republicans did not undermine support for the party’s nominee in the general election.  However, it did produce “significantly less positive ratings of the Republican Party,” he says – a factor clearly in evidence in the antiestablishment surge backing Trump.

But whether that “carryover effect” works in the opposite direction, with establishment activists willing to work as hard for Trump, is not clear.

Moreover, “Trump is scarier to people than Hillary,” a factor that could help disappointed Sanders activists get behind Clinton.

But Sharon Wildberger, a graduate student at George Washington University, also protesting Trump outside the Mayflower Hotel, isn’t one of them. She says that she strongly opposes Trump but can’t support Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy, even in a general election.

“Somebody has to beat him, but it doesn’t mean I have to vote for her,” she says.

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